What flights of fancy there have been. No less a prize than the Ashes awaits and England are veering between introducing a batsman soon to mark his 40th birthday whose unfulfilled international career ended seven years ago and one of 28 who was born and educated in Cape Town and was not included four months ago in the summer's performance squad.
It is almost certain that Geoff Miller, the national selector and his colleagues, spent much less time yesterday discussing the merits of the former, Mark Ramprakash, than the latter, Jonathan Trott. Several other candidates will have featured in the conversation as well with England, albeit level at 1-1 in the series, in the mother of desperate positions. Miller and his men may yet opt for no change which would be entirely in keeping with their long-avowed policy. But last night it seemed certain that Trott would receive his first cap ahead of one of the other candidates, Robert Key.
Ramprakash's case for inclusion in the team for the decisive fifth npower Test has undoubtedly added to the gaiety of the nation. But as the romantic drama continued to unfold this week it has become clear that it is based more or less entirely on the instinctive fondness for comebacks. Dear old Ramps, like Norma Desmond, might be ready for his close-up, Mr Miller, but it is not going to happen.
He has made 12,518 exquisitely crafted runs for Surrey since his last Test appearance in 2002 and is a far more mature cricketer now, but the longer the story has gone on this week the more implausible it has seemed. Nobody doubts Ramprakash's elegant class and although his row with the umpires at Hove last summer which led to a two-match ban at the start of this season might continue to cast doubt on his temperament, he is by common consent much mellower. But all his runs in 2009 have been in the Second Division of the Championship, no preparation for an Ashes decider.
Trott provides the selectors with a different conundrum. His three hundreds, all of high calibre (he has since added a fourth), persuaded them that he should be the next batsman in line and he was included in the squad for Headingley. On that basis, if they decide to make a change, Trott, who began playing cricket in England in 2003 after three seasons playing for his native Boland and Western Province, should play.
Two batsmen are at obvious risk in the team that folded in Leeds last week, Ravi Bopara and Ian Bell. Both looked dangerously brittle and could have no complaints if omitted. But such meddling has its own risks this close to the line. Possibly, the selectors will spare both, but probably they will decide that Bopara has to be taken out of the firing line.
To ask Trott to make his Test debut batting at No 3 in the match to decide the Ashes would be an enormous gamble. Players have been introduced for the first time at The Oval against Australia before – Barry Wood in 1972, Paul Parker in 1981 – but the destination of the urn had been decided.
Trott is in splendid form and he made good runs, including a hundred for England Lions against New Zealand A last winter at No 3. But he has barely batted in the position this summer and in any case this is different, much different. Imagine picking an uncapped centre-forward who had scored a few Premier League goals for a football World Cup final, or an Olympic 1500 metres final in which a runner who had romped home for Anytown Harriers a few times was expected to bring home gold. That would seem to bring the argument back to Ramprakash. But there is a third man. Rob Key of Kent last played for England four years ago, which says something about his form and the selectors' willingness to stick with what they have. What a time Kevin Pietersen chose to be injured and how huge a hole he has left.
Key is a pragmatic cricketer who is the sort to treat both triumph and disaster in a pleasantly sardonic fashion. As luck and timing would have it, he has just entered a sequence of decent form and although it would have been impossible to greet his selection with overwhelming relief, as though it were only a matter of time before the Ashes were in England's front room, he would have been the wisest choice. But the selectors appeared to have decided against him yesterday, leaving the likelihood of asking Bell to bat at three.
Which will just give the selectors sufficient time to ponder the bowling, every bit as ordinary as the batting in Leeds. There are many concerns. Australia appear to have worked out Graeme Swann who has bowled some telling deliveries but is taking a wicket every 116 balls in the series. Spin will play a role at The Oval but Swann will need to bowl 200 overs to bowl Australia out.
Andrew Flintoff is thankfully expected to return but the selectors must then calculate who to drop and while Stuart Broad had seemed the likeliest nominee, his 6 for 91 and 61 in Leeds has ended that speculation. Jimmy Anderson bowled like a drain at times but if as expected he recovers from his tweaked hamstring, the choice would be between the Durham pair of Graham Onions and Steve Harmison.
While it would be hoped that Harmison could prosper at The Oval, the jettisoning of Onions would remove a man who has been easily England's most prolific bowler, taking wickets every 46 balls, compared to the next best Broad at every 60 balls. England's team will be announced at 9.30am tomorrow. Nobody will be confident that it can bring back the Ashes.
Ashes watch: The contenders
*Heading for the oval
Ian Bell (Warwickshire)
Thursday's patience paid off as he turned his overnight score of 92 into a century before he was out lbw for 126 at Trent Bridge.
Jonathan Trott (Warwickshire)
Put himself firmly in the frame with his 121 on Thursday but yesterday could do no more than wait for the selectors to decide.
Graham Onions (Durham)
He claimed three more wickets at Old Trafford to take his season's first-class tally to 67.
Alastair Cook (Essex)
Hit 66 off 79 balls with 10 boundaries as Essex chased victory at Lord's, but his place is not in doubt.
*Waiting by the phone
Ryan Sidebottom (Nottinghamshire)
Bowled better than anyone as Warwickshire piled up the runs but with absolutely no luck.
Monty Panesar (Northamptonshire)
No batting heroics as Kent marched to victory at Wantage Road and not taking many wickets.
Ravi Bopara (Essex)
The batsman under most pressure, but helped his case with an unbeaten 50 to secure victory at Lord's.
AJ Strauss, AN Cook, IR Bell, IJL Trott, PD Collingwood, MJ Prior, A Flintoff, SCJ Broad, GP Swann, JM Anderson, G OnionsReuse content